The benefits and virtues of quinoa are widely extolled in health magazines and wellness publications, but what is the history behind this grain-like food?
Originating in the area surrounding Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia, quinoa was originally a food staple of pre-Columbian civilizations and was widely distributed around and beyond Inca territory. It was first successfully grown for human consumption around 3,000 – 4,000 years ago, though there is evidence that it was used for herding practices as far back as 5,000 BC.
Incas labelled quinoa the 'mother grain,' and had a number of rituals and traditions relating to the substance. Incan emperors would break ground with a golden tool at the first planting of the season, in order to show respect for what the planet provided them, in producing quinoa. Religious festivals included offering quinoa to the 'Sun God' in a fountain of gold, and Incas worshipped entombed quinoa seeds regularly. Indeed, its status among these groups was so high that even as recently as the sixteenth-century, a khipu (method of measuring numerical information) showed that quinoa was ranked higher that potatoes on an inventory list. As well as having such high status among those living in the Andean area, quinoa was used largely in baking, and was served in a number of dishes prepared by the indigenous people of the region.
Quinoa plants can be anywhere from three feet to more than ten feet tall. They are frost-resistant, they can survive on only a few inches of rainfall, and they thrive when grown between 9,000 and 13,000 feet above sea level, meaning that they are an almost exclusive product of the Andes, which provides all of these conditions. Peru and Bolivia boast around 2,000 types of quinoa, but these are whittled down into five broad categories: quinoa from the valley, altiplanic quinoa (which grows in lakeside areas), quinoa from Bolivian salt flats, sea-level quinoa and subtropical quinoa.
Billed in the modern-day as a 'supergrain,' quinoa has an extensive range of health benefits that have led to its inclusion in many wellness and health regimes. Firstly, quinoa is one of only a few foods to contain all nine essential amino acids, making it one of the most protein-rich foods we can eat. It contains twice as much fiber as the majority of other grains, which can help in preventing heart disease, reducing high blood pressure and lowering cholesterol. Quinoa contains an abundance of iron, which is vital for brain function and regulation of body temperature, and with mineral and antioxidants including magnesium, manganese, riboflavin and lysine, it is little wonder the Inca set such store by this 'superfood.'
Though quinoa appears to be grain-like, it is not actually a grain, which means the food is also gluten-free. This is crucial for many people who discover that weight loss and general well-being is improved when they cut out gluten or wheat; huge numbers of people have at least a small intolerance to these types of food, and replacing bread, rice, pasta and other grainy food with quinoa can have a huge impact on their sense of well-being and their overall health. Calorie-counters can also find satisfaction in swapping their regular carbohydrates for quinoa. It has just 172 calories per ¼ of a cup, and it has a low glycemic index, making it ideal for those who suffer from diabetes.
The United Nations has even sat up and pay attention to the benefits of quinoa, stating that it could be a key component in the ending of malnutrition across the globe. The indigenous people of the Peru and other surrounding countries have been praised for preserving such a crucial ingredient for thousands of years, and the UN even declared that 2013 would be the International Year of Quinoa, as they attempt to raise awareness surrounding this incredibly rich and nutritious food.
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